Friday, July 21, 2006

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There's a classified blogosphere?

Apparently so -- and according to the Washington Post's Dana Priest, someone was just kicked off that particular island:

Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it.

Only people with top-secret security clearances could read her musings, which were posted on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified intranet. Writing as Covert Communications, CC for short, she opined in her online journal on such national security conundrums as stagflation, the war of ideas in the Middle East and -- in her most popular post -- bad food in the CIA cafeteria.

But the hundreds of blog readers who responded to her irreverent entries with titles such as "Morale Equals Food" won't be joining her ever again.

On July 13, after she posted her views on torture and the Geneva Conventions, her blog was taken down and her security badge was revoked. On Monday, Axsmith was terminated by her employer, BAE Systems, which was helping the CIA test software.

As a traveler in the classified blogosphere, Axsmith was not alone. Hundreds of blog posts appear on Intelink. The CIA says blogs and other electronic tools are used by people working on the same issue to exchange information and ideas.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Douglas Hart and Steven Simon have an article in the Spring 2006 issue of Survival that addresses the larger question of the role that blogs can play in bolstering intelligence analysis. In light of the Post story, this section is worth quoting:

Current reporting procedures within the intelligence community enforce a hierarchical organisational structure in which information flows up and decisions flow down. Blogs, on the other hand, produce communities of interest in which power is manifested through the number of individual connections within a network, rather than through an individualís position with respect to reporting chains. These networks are key to emergent or new types of critical thinking amongst the analytical population. In other words, blogs might well be a means for individual analysts to express dissenting opinions that are not subject to official censorship.

Blogs can encourage critical thinking by placing bloggers in an informal and wide-reaching context of peer review that is not easily censored by management. Furthermore, a blog might be linked to structured arguments as evidence of the thought process that went into the argument. Alternatively, blogs, especially those espousing contrarian positions, could be linked to structured arguments as a means of safeguarding against analytical bias and its collective equivalent, groupthink. Blogs might also operate as digital dissent channels out of the glare of a stifling official context.

I have to think that this episode will blunt these kind of benefits.

posted by Dan on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM




Comments:

When I was in the Marine Corps, it was made clear that while in uniform we were subordinate to the political will of elected officials and banned from making statements of political creed. Thatís not our job. We were to execute the political will of the President -- as delegated to his political appointees, Marine Officers. To be sure, Non-commissioned Officers have a special duty, derived from the origins of the NCO corps in the People, to preserve and care for the individual Marine. But the choice of mission, and the terms of its accomplishment are set by the political leaders. (Indeed the scope of authority of NCOs and the distinctive place of the NCO in American tradition are almost unknown outside the military. When was the last time you saw an NCO analyst on television?)

I see a parallel in the intelligence agencies. For example, it would be completely appropriate for a Marine Sergeant to complain to his Lieutenant about the quality of chow for his men. But he could NEVER complain about the terms of the mission! A Sergeant may disagree with the Marine Corpsís interpretation of the Laws of Land Warfare, but to give voice to that disagreement in uniform is to fight against the delegated authority of civilian leadership.

Likewise, any government employee working under the delegated authority of the President is obligated in their work to uphold the decisions of the President. Complaints about the terms of the mission, on the job, applies the weight of oneís office against the policies of elected officials. Looking after the well-being of oneís fellow intelligence is one thing, challenging the policies of elected officials is quite another.

Obedience to the will of the people, through the expressed authority of elected officials, ought to be the first duty of government employees.

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



There is extensive blogging occuring in classified/secure channels around the Uniformed Services at levels ranging from junior NCOs to 4-Star Generals. The operational and intelligence communities of at least the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force have somewhat embraced the blogging concept and are using it to share information, tactics, techniques, procedures and analysis.

posted by: ND on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Jeff,

Paradoxically, if Axsmith had been an actual government employee instead of being employed by a private sector contractor, she probably wouldn't have been dismissed so easily because there are more protections for government employees. After all, the First Amendment protects against state action, not against a contractor's adverse employment action.

posted by: PG on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]




Obedience to the will of the people, through the expressed authority of elected officials, ought to be the first duty of government employees.

Firstly, the woman was a contractor, not a government employee. Secondly, it may come as a shock to you, but obedience to the will of the people does not obedience to the will of the President. This is not North Korea. Thirdly, even government employees most definitely can challegent orders that are illegal or unconstitutional.

posted by: erg on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



The blog was probably on an Intranet, rather than the Internet.

posted by: Mark L on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



PG, that's shocking. Thanks for the info.

erg, the President IS the Executive Branch, and he IS elected by the people, and he DOES direct the entire military, intelligence and foreign policy apparatus of the US on behalf of the People.

If one works for any of the Executive Departments, one must obey the will of the President. Anything else would mean the President couldnít execute his constitutionally assigned duties. Certainly, individuals can choose whether or not to work for the government, but they cannot legitimately choose to work AGAINST the President in the exercise of his authority.

Even military personnel must disobey illegal orders. However, while military personnel must obey the UCMJ, civilian personnel out to quit or be dismissed for failing to obey the direction of the President. Government employees are not empowered to decide whatís constitutional and whatís not --- thatís the job of the Supreme Court. (Although the Court usurped that right in Marbury v. Madison. Itís nowhere granted in the Constitution itself.)

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]




If one works for any of the Executive Departments, one must obey the will of the President. Anything else would mean the President couldnít execute his constitutionally assigned duties. Certainly, individuals can choose whether or not to work for the government, but they cannot legitimately choose to work AGAINST the President in the exercise of his authority.

Firstly, as was pointed out at least 3 times, the woman is NOT a government employee.

Secondly, there is a vast difference between workign against the President and disagreeing with or expressing disagreement with a particular policy.

posted by: erg on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



erg, I can't see that it makes any difference if she is a government employee or not. In both cases she takes money to execute a small portion of the President's policies. In other words, she has a small, but official, capacity. Expressing disagreement with a particular policy of the President's in the official capacity delegated to her by the President is simply untenable. If she had done it on a personal blog, no one would care. She didn't, and she was rightly sacked for using her office to lend criticism against the Presidentís policies.

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]




erg, I can't see that it makes any difference if she is a government employee or not. In both cases she takes money to execute a small portion of the President's policies.

So lets see now. Practically all companies have government contracts. And defense companies have huge government contracts. Does this mean that if a defense company, for instance, starts lobbying COngress or taking out ads to oppose a Presidential defense cutback, the CEOs of those companies can be fired ? Indeed, given the huge number of government contracts and the like, it would put practically every large company's actions in total control of the President, because they are all taking 'Government money'.


xpressing disagreement with a particular policy of the President's in the official capacity delegated to her by the President is simply untenable. I

She is a software contractor. She has nothing to do with the actual policy, except to comment on it. And he was doing so in a semi-private setting.

YOu seem to have this strange belief that even expressing disagreement with the President's policy in a largely private setting (not publically) is grounds for dismissal. The President is not the Emperor, and people can and most definitely DO disagree with his policies. even government employees, let alone private company employees.

posted by: erg on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



"If one works for any of the Executive Departments, one must obey the will of the President."

You mean they are also not allowed to vote?

posted by: bemused on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Erg -

It seems to be that Jeff is saying this (and please, Jeff, correct me if I'm wrong):

If someone is a gov't employee, they can be rightly terminated for opposing presidential policy while acting in an official capacity (of course, while off duty they can do whatever they want).

As a gov't contractor, she takes on aspects of a gov't employee. An actual decision to terminate her rests, of course, with her private employer. Yet the US gov't would (and no doubt did) put extensive pressure on the company, by threatening to terminate the contract, for instance, if they did /not/ fire her. And the US gov't is within its rights to do so.

While the CEO of a defense company who actively lobbied against a certain political position certainly could not be fired--after all, it would be the COMPANY firing him--he can be sure that he will not see any government contracts for a looong time. Seems fine to me.

Bemused -

Voting, of course, takes place in a private, off duty capacity, as do most activities of, well, anyone. Thus you can do whatever you want. There really is a big difference between being 'on duty' and 'off duty,' just like in the military.

My take on the whole case is mixed. I think that the US gov't and her employer did not overstep their rights in firing her, but I'm unsure if firing her was wise. It really depends on what the purpose of the classified intranet and the blogs on it.

posted by: Fifster on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Let's see: she said that waterboarding is torture, torture is wrong, and at least some of our interrogations are proving fruitless.

Which of those, exactly, would President Bush disagree with in public? How about the CIA director? Who, exactly?

Obviously, Goss or not, the CIA is not going to tolerate any real internal debate. Which makes me all the more eager to see the CIA torturers, and the officials who encouraged them, indicted. (No, I won't be holding my breath.)

posted by: Anderson on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Fifster, that's it, thank you. I agree that we can question the prudence of the firing decision. Likewise, we can question the decorum (in the wide sense of Ďdecorumí used in rhetoric) of Ms. Axsmithís blog.

With regard to the CEO of the hypothetical defense company, his dissent from the Presidentís policies would not be conducted in his official capacity, AS DELEGATED BY THE PRESIDENT. But the CEO would be crossing a line, if he were to communicate his policy dissent on government stationery used by his company in official defense project communications.

Why is this so controversial?

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Jeff Younger,

Using a government intranet to express private opinions could be construed as crossing a line, although the correct response should have been to remove the blog, not dismiss the analyst from her job.

You raise a more basic point, though, which I don't think the above objections directly address. That is what to do in cases where a matter of professional military judgment has political implications.

Take the military strategy we followed for the first twelve months of the insurgency in Iraq. The Army and Marines received orders to clear insurgents out of various places, which they did, only to vacate the places and see the insurgents come back within a few weeks.

It became obvious by the summer of 2004 that the military was successful in temporarily clearing out insurgents but not in preventing them from coming back or replacing their losses. Defenders of the war soon realized this problem and argued that these exercises were still a way to disrupt the insurgents and keep them off balance while the Iraqis built up their own forces. A year later, critics argued that we should have used our troops to secure and hold some areas and then gradually extend the areas that we could have secured.

It is probably impossible to say who was right. What is clear is that we had to choose between (1) seizing and abandoning a large number of places vs. (2) seizing and holding some areas and ceding others to the insurgents at least temporarily. We chose strategy (1) rather than strategy (2). We could not pursue the optimal strategy of (3) seizing every place and holding every place, because we did not have the troops and the Iraqis did not have the troops to occupy the entire country effectively on a continuous basis.

The obvious criticism was to argue, as many at the time did, that we should have put more troops into the country, if not at the beginning of the war, then as soon as it became clear that an insurgency was underway. Against this call for more troops, it was counter-argued at the time that more US troops would have made the Iraqis more dependent. But there was I think a valid debate over US troop levels and having such a debate did not in and of itself constitute an attack on the deeper mission.

Here is my point. The troop level at the start of the war was a professional *military* decision distinct from the strictly political decision to go to war in the first place. The decision to hold down the troop level afterwards was also a military decision. In fact, the civilian leaders expressly pledged to give the generals the troops they wanted and it was the generals who did not want more, even as a temporary expedient until Iraqis could take the place of US troops.

Do you think senior officers were placed in a fair and proper position of having to offer military advice to the President knowing full well that a request for substantially more manpower would have caused political difficulties back home? Does it constitute offering *policy* advice if a request for more troops as a strictly military necessity requires a policy decision to grant? Do private citizens automatically undermine a war effort if debate over strategy that implies that present strategy could be better than it is? Or do we leave this to the military, which may be constrained in less than proper ways from recommending a strategy that strictly military judgment would have urged?

posted by: David Billington on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Mr. Billington, I admit that the analyst could have been spared dismissal. As Fifster points out, the decision is prudential. It likely would depend on the nature of the blog posts. That decision rests with more senior managers to whom the President has delegated the appropriate authority.

Do you think senior officers were placed in a fair and proper position of having to offer military advice to the President knowing full well that a request for substantially more manpower would have caused political difficulties back home?

Oh yes, it was fair and proper. The President can delegate all manner of warmaking authority including the development of options and advice, but the decision authority is the Presidentís alone, subject to the constitutional constraints on Executive authority.

Far from being put in an unfair position, senior officers were ordered to produce these plans along with recommendations. In the military planning process there is a formal place to disagree about ways and means: itís in the estimate process and the wargaming sessions. What you will never find, and should never find, is disagreement about the ends. Military officers cannot decide to make war without a decisive authorization from elected officials; likewise a military officer cannot resist the will of elected officials if they choose to make war.

Does it constitute offering *policy* advice if a request for more troops as a strictly military necessity requires a policy decision to grant?

No. The policy decision is still the Presidentís. The military can only provide the President advice, recommendations, and likely outcomes based on the ways and means available. The military is a tool of policy, not a policy-maker. And thank goodness! Military officers serve at the pleasure of the President as political appointees of the President, and while ratified by the Senate (like any appointee) officers are not elected.

In military terms, the President receives an Ďestimateí of a course of action, but the decision is his.

Do private citizens automatically undermine a war effort if debate over strategy that implies that present strategy could be better than it is? Or do we leave this to the military, which may be constrained in less than proper ways from recommending a strategy that strictly military judgment would have urged?

No! Private citizens who debate how to improve the war effort act honorably. Itís their government, and, if knowledgeable, citizens should participate in the development of policy through their elected officials.

But we should be aware of the nature of policy-making. Policy decisions are always on-balance. In other words, even the best course of action can have serious difficulties. Merely noting difficulties in an existing course of action does not invalidate the policy; it could still have been the best among all alternatives.

posted by: Jeff Younger on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



This thread nicely illustrates Hunt and Simon's point about the role of blogs in intelligence (and, by implication, strategic, tactical and general policy analysis). They have a number of potential advantages, yet are bound to be resisted by people and institutions long used to hierarchical structures for reporting information.

In this particular case, there is no gettng around the fact that whether certain interrogation practices are appropriate or not, and the reasons they are or not, is central to any decision the government may choose to make as to their place in policy. Without blogs, there are already means of expressing opinions on such subjects, channels that not only restrict discussion to people with the appropriate clearances (as Axsmith's blog apparently did) but also respect the chain of command, in the sense that dissenting opinions stop when someone above the level of the dissenter says they do. Axsmith's blog (again, apparently, for while I admire Dana Priest as a reporter I'm reluctant to draw firm conclusions from just one article) did not do this, but neither do conversations around the office water cooler. The question is whether blogs represent something fundamentally different than such informal conversations, or are rather an incremental change in them made possible in the last few years by more advanced technology.

If one believes the latter -- or if one wishes to go further and entrust to blogs a more active role in, as Dan says, bolstering analysis -- one is inevitably taking a step away from hierarchical organization in at least one additional and important sense. Hierarchical organizations can be very efficient in preventing the most senior officials from hearing opinions they may find disagreeable or unsettling, or which they might find embarrassing if they were leaked to the public. Though I agree with the principles that Jeff Younger has ably articulated here, I think the record of the last five-odd years leaves some room for doubt as to whether certain officials in this administration are not most often motivated by these considerations rather than by concerns about the integrity of their mission.

posted by: Zathras on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



The article suggests that Axsmith was a software technician, not an intelligence analyst. Certainly much of the content of her blog appears to have concerned matters other than intelligence analysis ("stagflation," "bad food in the CIA cafeteria"), and can be carried on outside the "classified blogosphere." It's not clear to me that there's any particular loss to the intelligence community here.

posted by: Tom T. on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Jeff, I'm unclear on your argument. How far you want to take it? Is your point that what she did wasn't appropiate because she did it in her role as a government contractor? Because I can at least partially get on board with that argument.

On the other hand, I think your analogy with the military is confusing things. A soldier is always a soldier. Even if he's not in uniform, he is still subject to the chain of command. And so various restrictions can be put on the political conduct of people in the military. Given all of the sensible worries about the military becoming involved in politics, it is good policy to prohibit military personnel from endorsing canidiates or publicly expressing opinions on political matters.

But government employees aren't soldiers. They are just people who happen to be working for the government. When they go home for the day, they aren't still acting in their role as employees and they are allowed to express opinions. Now, obviously this doesn't mean they can embarrass their bosses or divulge classified information by commenting on areas they work in, but they are allowed to act as private citizens.

Now I understand that in this particular case, the woman might have been writing in her capacity as an employee, but you seem to be blurring some important distinctions.

posted by: Gabe on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



I just want you all to know that this is the most mature and intellectually responsible discussion I have ever seen in a comments section. You guys just made the blogosphere a little brighter for me.

Keep it up!

posted by: J. Clark on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



I think it's fairly obvious she was axed for political reasons. Had she written that President Bush is an incomparable imbecile, for example, there would have been some administrative rule or authoritative guidance that covered it (for example, the prohibition on political activities while in uniform that ordinarily -- though not under the current administration -- governs military personnel).

She wrote an empirical statement and a statement of opinion, though an opinion hardly radical. First, that waterboarding is torture. Second, that torture is wrong. It's hard to see how either of those sentences in and of themselves would constitute "political" speech, unless taken in the context of an administration that willfully ignores such nuances.

There was nothing inherently political about what she wrote. But since one cannot oppose waterboarding without -- again, in the current administration -- perforce opposing the president, she was knocked off.

I have observed, in my meanderings around the classified blogosphere and chat lines, no small amount of rah-rah, pro-Bush political speech that no only does not go unpunished, is enthusiastically supported. This purported proscription on political speech is a proscription only a speech of the non-GOP-approved kind.

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Jeff Younger,

Thank you for addressing my questions. My understanding is that the President publicly delegated troop levels to the military once the insurgency was underway, even though constitutionally he retained the last word on troop levels. It appeared to me that in making this public he was transferring some of the political onus of US troop levels on the generals. However, if the generals do not believe that the White House has tried to shift responsibility for our military strategy inappropriately in their direction, then it would seem that responsibility rests where it should.

posted by: David Billington on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



When I was in grad school (for an EE degree) almost no one who was really good went to defense contractors, despite the guarantee of a 40 hour work week and job security, because of the soul crushing bureaucracy. After this, I wonder if they’ll even be able to get anyone decent.

posted by: some engineer on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Hemlock for Gadflies said: "I have observed, in my meanderings around the classified blogosphere and chat lines, no small amount of rah-rah, pro-Bush political speech that no only does not go unpunished, is enthusiastically supported. This purported proscription on political speech is a proscription only a speech of the non-GOP-approved kind."

You've noticed that too, huh? I'm one of those on the classified blogosphere who try to balance some of those rants with more realistic analysis, like what analysts are paid to do. After this, I'll probably just shut up and mutter to myself. Big Brother is watching.

posted by: Nameless Bureaucrat on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Let me try and give an analogy.

Assume I'm working as a software contractor for the IRS. Does that mean that if I could be fired if I were to say on an internal blog that I disagree with a certain tax policy ? Assume too that I have nothing to do with implementing the particular policy and its not like I'm suggesting a crusade against a particular policy, i.e. its something I mention occasionally in the middle of other matters.

How is this situation different ? Since when do we believe that absolute complete loyalty to the President's will is the essence of government? It need hardly be added that the President himself has not exactly been completely punctilious himself in following Congress's laws.

posted by: erg on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Interesting that a contractor losing her clearance for blog posts we have no access to the full content of has become yet another chance to complain about how awful the President is and how evidently nobody can disagree with him without being terribly punished. (Except, I guess, at State or the CIA.)

"Empower[ing] grunts and paper pushers" sounds a lot like politics, to me, by the way - not just statement of opinion about what is-and-is-not torture (which, even better, is based on newspaper reports, she says!)

(And note that she was interrogated and fired because she talked about things she shouldn't have had any access to, which I hear is a big no-no in the CIA, even if you're posting on a secure network.

Crazy, huh? A contractor computer programmer talking about interrogation reports and someone wonders how she's been reading them!

Obviously Rove is behind this. That's the only explanation.)

posted by: Sigivald on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Quite simply, as a contractor you are hired to do a job. Your political opinion is irrelevant in the work place. If you want your politics known, do it outside of work, using your own resources. As far as I am concerned, Axsmith made unauthorized use of Government resources by using it for purposes other than her job.

posted by: theorgc on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]



Great, very useful citation at the end of this piece. And yes, I agree, I have to think that this episode will blunt these kind of benefits.

posted by: Professor Zero on 07.21.06 at 06:41 PM [permalink]






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